Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Watching the 20th Century, 1913 (cont.)

I needed a slight film to watch during lunch today, so I decided to finally sample a Thanhouser film. The
Thanhouser company made over 1,000 of these short, confectionary-light films during these early years of the
film industry. In this one, an evil broker decides to cheat a client out of $20,000 by having a messenger boy
deliver it to her, follows the boy, and switches envelopes with the boy at his first opportunity. Unfortunately for
him, not only does he foolishly step in front of a movie picture company camera during the act, not only does the
camera keep rolling even though they’re standing in front of the actors, not only does the messenger boy have a
family member working for the movie studio, but she also just happens to spot the deed on a few frames while
reviewing hundred of feet of film. Our villain hangs his head in shame at the end; he should be shaking his fists
and screaming “What are the odds??”

White slavery for the sex trade is the unusual topic of this early crime drama. The film certainly tries to tug at our
heartstrings -- showing us the grieving, elderly father of the kidnapped girl...the sister gets fired because of the
“disgrace” of her sister being missing...the newspaper headlines in the movie referring to her as a “little girl” when
the actress appears to be about 25. The younger sister is a pretty weak actress, her best skill being going limp
when her character faints. A lot of time is spent showing the irony of how the slave ringleader is seen by
everyone as a fine, upstanding citizen. You would think this movie would end with everyone’s arrest, but instead
there’s an extended denouement showing the ringleader get cosmic justice as well as civic justice.

Now, this movie couldn’t have been made today because a) wireless technology would have given Mary no clue
to follow to the slavers in the first place, and b) today, the sister could have called the police and they would have
taken her testimony as credible evidence for a raid. Then the movie would have been over in 15 minutes.
Instead, because she’s a woman and this is 1913, Mary and her detective boyfriend have to spend time putting
themselves at risk gathering evidence. Some of the evidence-gathering is interesting historical information -- like
how, in 1913, the cops can’t just listen to a bug planted in his office live; Mary has to sneak out the recording tube
from the hidden dictaphone and bring it to them. And it’s interesting how non-standardized steering wheels were
still in 1913, as the police car clearly has its steering wheel on the right side. Another curiosity, though I can’t tell
if this was actual practice or a dramatic device in the movie -- but the accused are allowed to see the witnesses
against them, in the police station, when they are being taken in.

The movie fails to ever build dramatic tension, though, and there seems to be a lot of padding sometimes. The
most effective scene is the mob scene when the ringleader is released on bail.

(This particular recording of Traffic of Souls has two peculiarities -- someone thought it would be a good idea to
put the name of the movie as a banner across the top, even though it covers up people’s faces, and there is a
short 12-minute film appended to the back of it. I did not watch the backup feature.)

Supposedly Danish director August Blom’s most successful film, this Titanic-inspired story starts with Dr. von
Kammacher stressed out over his sickly wife and his research being rejected, so his servants suggest he go out
more often to sooth his nerves. On one of his nights out, Kammacher meets a “dancer” named Miss Ingigerd.
Ingigerd is supposedly so good a dance that she’s about to go tour America, but if you watch nothing else from
this film, fast forward to the laughably bad dance sequence about 18 minutes into the movie (the antennae she’s
wearing do not help with taking her seriously).

Quickly, Kammacher falls for Ingigerd, despite the fact that she has the grace and poise of a bucket of mop
water. In fact, he’s so obsessed that he boards the same boat bound for America to pursue her. He keeps trying
to woo her on board and can’t understand how her “he’s married” radar is going off around him all the time (I
guess he ditched his wedding ring?).

The first act is slow and plodding. It ends with a curiously short scene with Kammacher dreaming about touring
the ruins of Atlantis. It doesn’t really make sense other than to give the movie its title. If anything made me want
to read the novel this movie was based on, it would be to find out if there was more to this scene in the book, and
some importance to it other than a vague foreshadowing of the disaster about to happen.

The action really picks up in the second act during the ship sinking. I’m still not sure how they did this. Surely they
didn’t have the budget to actually sink an ocean liner. My dad thinks the ship is just a model, but it can’t be too
small a model; special effects were not good enough in 1913 to splice footage so smoothly as I’m seeing. Maybe
it’s a smaller boat made to look like an ocean liner, and then made to look bigger with some trick of perspective.

Though a dramatic second act, the sinking is far from the end of the movie. Kammacher saves Ingigerd from her
room during the sinking (she almost got left behind because she was so seasick). After the survivors are rescued,
Ingigerd’s gratitude turns to lust. Kammacher, who was already weak as a puppy dog around her, can’t resist
how the hedonistic lifestyle in New York makes Ingigerd shockingly let down her hair, bare her arms, and show
her ankles. O wicked Ingigerd!

The third act has a bizarre subplot about an armless man who performs on tour with Ingigerd. We see a
surprising amount of this guy, and it’s a little disturbing how he performs like he’s in a freak show, playing a
trumpet, or playing cards, with his feet. It’s possible that this character is supposed to remind us that Herr
Douchebag -- I mean Kammacher -- is missing things too, like his dying wife and practically abandoned children.
I also have a strong suspicion that the man’s arms are in his coat.

One nice thing this act deals with that the movie Titanic ignored was what happens to the survivors afterwards.
We see their compulsion to hold reunions, because of their shared trauma, as well as the nervous depression the
survivors suffer. Kammacher suffers more than the others, of course, because he’s a horrible douchebag
drowning in guilt. BUT, the movie gives him a happy ending by having Ms. Burns, a New York artist, fall for him
and “cure” him with the healthy love he’s been missing in his life.

The main reason to stick around through the third act, though, is the gorgeous B roll footage of 1913 New York

Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life

It had bothered me that it looked like I was going to miss all the Keystone Cops shorts in this project because
they were not long enough to count as movies, but at least the fourth in the series was long enough at 13
minutes. It’s claim to fame is being the first time a woman was tied to railroad tracks on film. It’s semi-exciting and
dramatic and surprisingly unfunny, with a goofy, overly violent ending. Ford Sterling steals the show as the
caricature-ish villain.

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